There are many misconceptions and false stigmas
surrounding the disease that is addiction. To uncover
the truths behind the illness, we spoke with Christine
Ullstrup, vice president of clinical services for Meta
House, a women-only addiction recovery nonprofit, and
Dr. Lance Longo, medical director of addiction services
for Aurora Behavioral Health Services.
Ullstrup says it’s important to
understand addiction doesn’t pick and choose whom it
affects. “The more we stigmatize this disease, the more
people don’t get treatment because people use (a) word
like ‘addict,’” she explains.
Longo agrees, and says he knows from
experience that addiction doesn’t stereotype. “The
reality is (that) I have a lot of upstanding citizens
who have gotten caught up in the throes of addiction. I
treat doctors, teachers, preachers, kids from nice
families, and I think that the stereotype unfortunately
causes embarrassment for people who should be seeking
treatment — or it delays the onset of help-seeking
because of the stigma,” he adds.
Here we break down six additional
misconceptions of addiction.
People with an addiction can quit whenever they want.
Like many diseases, addiction’s impact
changes over time and as the illness progresses. “It’s a
continuum,” says Longo. “So in the beginning, (a person)
can be (in control) — a person can recreationally use
alcohol or other drugs and may have control over that.
But over time, then that loss of control occurs.”
When the needs of an addiction take over,
Ullstrup says a person’s everyday choices revolve around
the substance. “It can kind of hijack your brain at some
points, so it’s harder to make a good decision because
the brain’s rewards system is looking for something
different,” she explains. “So as much as you want to
make a good decision about something in your life — a
relationship, driving or not driving, going to school,
going to work — sometimes addiction takes over.”
avoid damaging your relationship with someone who has an
addiction, you must stop communication with them until
they become clean.
When someone becomes addicted to a
substance, both Ullstrup and Longo agree that having a
family member, friend or even co-worker alongside him or
her can aid the recovery process. You can listen and
support someone with an addiction, but only if you feel
safe emotionally and physically and understand how the
disease can affect your loved one, Ullstrup says.
“A lot of people, like family members,
unfortunately just ignore (the problem), or, on the flip
side, just yell and berate the person who has the
problem and then that person just kind of goes
undercover,” Longo says.
Addiction is something you can never overcome.
Ullstrup says the timeline of addiction
and recovery is highly individualized. Depending on the
duration of use and access to the drug, a person’s
addiction process can vary.
“(Certain drugs) have very potent effects
in terms of brain chemistry — they prime the brain’s
reward pathway, and if a person uses them for more than
a couple of weeks, every day, there will be withdrawal
when they stop using,” Longo adds. “So they’ll feel
compelled to continue to use just to feel normal or to
get rid of sickness.”
Nonetheless, Longo and Ullstrup say
anyone can overcome addiction with proper treatment and
support from loved ones.
You can stop someone’s addiction by enforcing a dry-home
Although it can be helpful to limit
access to the substance, enforcing a dry-home
environment can have life-threatening consequences for
someone with an addiction.
“Depending on the substance, (cutting it
out) ‘cold turkey’ can be dangerous,” Ullstrup says. “If
someone is physically dependent on alcohol or a
benzodiazepine, going through withdrawal can be fatal.”
Only people who have a bad addiction will relapse.
Ullstrup and Longo compare relapsing to
cheating on a diet or not sticking with an exercise
regimen; it can happen to anyone, but it’s not something
to be ashamed of.
“Relapse is not necessarily a bad
prognosis, and many people have to relapse in order for
them to own the fact that they truly have an addiction
and can’t return to controlled use of alcohol or a
drug,” Longo says.
However, Ullstrup says it is important to
recognize that although relapsing doesn’t mean you
failed your recovery, you don’t have to relapse to
become clean. “You’ll hear out there, ‘Relapse is a part
of the disease,’” she continues. “It is, but it doesn’t
have to be. You don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, I
should relapse,’ or ‘I’m not doing this right’ either.
But it’s very possible, because it’s such a chronic
condition, that you’re going to mess up.”
Addiction is not hereditary.
Because addiction impairs your brain’s
behaviors and desires at a neurological level, it’s no
wonder family history plays a role. “There is a huge
genetic component that I think we’ve learned more about
over the years, and it’s (that) if you’re the son or
daughter of an alcoholic or drug-addicted mom or dad,
you have a 45 times greater likelihood of developing an
addiction,” Longo says.
Ullstrup agrees, and says addiction is
more likely to occur due to certain hereditary
situations or home-life factors — or a combination of
“The science shows us that some people
have a genetic predisposition to addiction,” Ullstrup
explains. “The other thing is that people grow up in
households or in families where they see or learn,
probably on an unconscious level, that a way to cope
with uncomfortable situations is to drink or to use